Christmas is a torrid time for the humble fishmonger. Turkeys are easy; pre-order from your butcher or your local supermarket, tell them the size and the day you want to collect, and Bob’s your uncle, dinner is served.
Of course the difference between the turkey and the turbot, the rump and the red mullet, or the ham and the hake is that the formers are all strolling around a field waiting to be herded or in a pen waiting to be gathered and the latters are all swimming in 106,400,000 km² of Atlantic Ocean! This is consistent across the year for fish availability with weather, seasons, quotas, transport all affecting availability of wild caught species, but at Christmas it is worse. This year, for example, the country’s most important auctions throughout the Southwest close on Monday 23rd December. Sounds fine as the fish, one would think, will find their way around the country for the 24th. Many vessels will actually use Saturday 21st as their last auction day as export trade will cease from then; exports to the continent make up a huge volume of fish sold on our Southwest auctions and are commonly a driver for the price the fisherman gain. Additionally the next wholesale auction is on Monday 30th but these are very limited with fish and there is usually no transport to move the catch to other parts of the UK. Normal service then resumes on Friday 3rd January.
So, with all this in mind, your sudden urge to have a 3kg wild sea bass or a 2kg brill for Christmas dinner may not be as easy as you hoped. Now I was lucky enough to be the manager of London’s finest fishmonger for nearly 6 years. It’s a thankless period of huge sales and 20 hour days on the run up to Christmas Eve. Sounds profitable but then one has to close for 2 weeks until fish are again available so in reality it’s the least profitable time of the year. At The Chelsea Fishmonger Rex Goldsmith and I spent many a Christmas telling customers we couldn’t guarantee anything wild for Christmas and they would have to just take pot luck. To be fair most customers were understanding but of course there is always the odd one who refuses to accept this scenario. It is slightly easier in my current occupation as many restaurants will set their Christmas menus in November and seek advice prior to doing so.
My tips are: always order early, be realistic with your requests and always give your fishmonger an alternative. If you prefer to ignore these tips then be sure you have some cranberry jelly in the cupboard.